Life Projects & Purpose

College of Engineering Fall Convocation
Krannert Center
University of Illinios at Urbana-Champaign
December 17, 2016
Peng T. Ong



I am honored to be able to talk to you today.

Congratulations on making it to this point, at one of the world’s top engineering schools.

Now what? We each have about a 100 years on the planet. (Yes, ... you've got approximately 80 left.)

I know many of you already have a job lined up. Have you thought about how the next few years of your life tees you up for the rest of it?

As an entrepreneur, and then a VC, I have spent a lot of my time talking to many highly-accomplished individuals about what drives them... about their purpose.

One of the hardest challenges that many people face is in deciding on a purpose. Yes, I did say deciding. Not finding. Not discovering. Not searching for.

You have to decide on your purpose, or it will literally not really be YOUR PURPOSE.

I would like to use our next few minutes to tell you about three things I'm spending time on because of my purpose.

My "Life Projects", as I call them.

What I hope for is that they prompt you to think about and decide on your own purpose.


#1 – Southeast Asian Globals

The first Life Project is about where I'm from.

You should know I grew up in a Singapore that is very different from the one you see today. I grew up in a developing country. Most of Southeast Asian countries are still developing.

Over the last decade or so, I have also been a keen observer of China. I spent a few years living in Beijing as a VC.

Beyond significant wealth creation, as they produced better products and more successful startups, I have observed that the engineers and entrepreneurs grew in confidence… From a view that almost all products made outside of China were superior, to now, where there is confidence that they can build global standard-setting products at will.

I’d like to see that confidence in engineers and entrepreneurs in the part of the world I come from.

It doesn’t take a lot, I don’t think. Just a series of companies that start becoming globally known for what they do. A series of Southeast Asian globals.

So, I push, in my small way, ... working with the entrepreneurs there, one startup at a time.


#2 – Solve Education

The next Life Project is about the less fortunate.

My dad left China when he was 3 years old, and never went back. Growing up, I was never connected with his family there.

After my dad passed away, I was put in touch with my relatives in China.

In my first visit to my ancestral village, I met with more than a hundred relatives, including 41 Pengs. ("Peng" is my generational name, it turns out.)

After a few days there, I realized that most of the Ongs have quite humble backgrounds. Most were farmers in our home village.

But the relatives on the female sides of the family, the non-Ongs, were doing well ... factory owners, business people, researchers, doctors, etc.

“Why?” I wondered.

It turned out that when the new regime took over in the 1940s, my ancestors were landlords.

Unfortunately, if you were an Ong from my home town, your chances of being able to get permission to pursue higher education was slim to none.

So most of the Ongs were not educated, and the non-Ongs were. And the Ongs did not fair as well in life.

The importance of education was made clear to me in a very personal, and statistically significant way.


A bit later, a visit to Africa exposed me to the challenges of education in developing countries, and the constraints of a possible solution.

According to UNESCO, there are 263 million kids that do not attend school. (Two Hundred and Sixty-Three million kids! — let that sink in.)

We started a foundation (called Solve Education!) to attempt to solve the problem of education, at scale, for these kids.

We believe that given the falling prices of broadband and devices, this problem is perhaps reduced to what resources, apps, and content that we can make available online.

When we saw that technology, could potentially solve such a sizable problem, we could not not embark upon the project.


#3 - Tech Disruption

The third Life Project is about our collective future.

What engineers do is build technology to improve the human condition. A laudable goal. A goal that drives most of us in this room.

Typically, technology makes the economy a bit more efficient.

But, have you thought about the challenges as technology keeps making the economy more and more efficient?

For example, when we fully roll-out self-driving cars and trucks across a country, we will improve safety, reduce traffic and pollution, etc. But, we will also put 2 to 3% of the country’s working population out of work.

And this is just one technology we will be deploying.

As an engineer, you have to realize the impact of what you do, and that, sometimes, the solution lies outside the realm of engineering.

So a while ago, I started to have conversations with political leaders and policy makers about technology disruptions and its impact on society. And I will keep having these conversations for the foreseeable future.

Our leaders have significant work ahead of them as technology disruptions start growing in scale.



Whether it's making a difference to
    - folks where you come from, or,
    - people who are less fortunate, or,
    - our collective future, or,
    - some other mission that drives you...
Life Projects are how you work towards your purpose.

As you embark on life's adventure, you might decide you'd like to spend a chunk of your life pursuing some endeavor.

Ask yourself why.

Keep asking why to the answer you give yourself.

And at some point, the answer would be
    "because I've decided that that is the purpose of my life."
Decide on a purpose that will make your 100 years on this planet meaningful.

Thank you all very much.